The transition of students with Down syndrome from Grade 8 to Grade 9 is not just a change from elementary into secondary school: it is also a transition to a different set of practices and a different educational culture. It is important for families and students to be aware of how secondary schools are organized and how they operate, and the unique opportunities they offer.
There is a wide range of programme models for young people with Down syndrome who are enrolled in high school, and it is important to conduct thorough research about the various programmes and the different models they use. Different school boards, for a variety of reasons, offer different instructional options, or placements, to students.
These are the most common models:
Full inclusion: students with Down syndrome take all their classes with typically developing peers
Partial inclusion: there is a separate program for students with developmental disabilities, which they leave for part of the day to take courses with their typically developing peers
Specialized program: a separate program for students with developmental and other disabilities, where they spend the full instructional day
Some school boards maintain these models until the student with Down syndrome is 18, and then the student is invited to convert to a different program, with a focus on transitioning to life in the work force or at college or university.
The family and the student with Down syndrome should visit and compare the available program options. One of the key questions to investigate is: what is the degree of academic focus of the program?
Some students with Down syndrome want to continue to improve their Math and Literacy skills and follow up on areas of academic interest such as Science or Information Technology or Drama. These students might prefer a program where they can continue to be involved in the mainstream academic activities of a school.
Other students with Down syndrome may wish to focus on developing practical skills for life after secondary school. They may wish to attend a specialized program where they can practice life skills such as cooking and doing laundry.
Many students with Down syndrome and their families have a strong interest in the work they will do after secondary school. They may wish to attend a specialized program where they can discover and build their vocational interests, skills and plans.
For all students, secondary school is a time of increased independence, and for students with Down syndrome, increased independence may be exactly what they are wishing for. Their family members should keep informed about the degree of independence the student with Down syndrome has at school, and how they are managing it.
Some scenarios to be alert to:
Is the student with Down syndrome monitored by school personnel to an appropriate degree? (Every Ontario school has the safety of all students as the top priority, but your child may be capable of more, or less, independence than the school is offering.)
With whom does the student with Down syndrome have friendly relationships? Parents may be delighted to learn that the cafeteria staff or the Math teacher or a fellow student know and appreciate their child, and that their child has independently formed bonds with people at school.
Does the student have roles in the school that accord them respect and social value? If your child is managing the props for the school play, they will probably earn the respect of their peers. If they are assigned the job of spraying the tables in the cafeteria, they may not experience what the experts call “social role valorization”.
Secondary school is organized quite differently from elementary school.
In secondary school, the year typically is divided into two semesters, and in each semester, students study 4 subjects in four 70-minute periods per day. This means that a student has four different teachers in one semester, and it is possible that they will have another four different teachers in the second semester. It can be challenging for teachers to get to know the strengths and needs of students with Down syndrome in the hectic days at the beginning of the semester, but nevertheless, the teachers are expected to describe on the IEP how they plan to accommodate the exceptional students in their classes.
Another significant difference is that the amount of communication with home is generally reduced, for at least two reasons: 1) student independence is valued, and 2) every teacher who teaches an academic class may be teaching up to 90 students a day. In those circumstances, communication with individual families can be challenging. This makes IEP meetings and parent-teacher nights particularly important, as they represent key opportunities for family and caregivers to interact with the school team.
Would your young person enjoy being involved in student government?
Would they like to play on or manage a sports team?
Do they aspire to appear in the drama, dance, art or music show, or sing in the choir?
Would they like to be involved with fundraising, volunteering, or mentoring?
Would they like to belong to a club or group: photography, Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA), or the pastoral team?
You and your young person with Down syndrome may wish to keep a record of their passing interests and hopes, as school personnel would certainly be open to discussing the extra-curricular interest of your young person with Down syndrome.